COVID-19 raises anxiety at start of new school year

COVID-19 cases are on the rise and raising anxiety around the possibility that schools could implement mask mandates or close down again. 

Surges of COVID-19 cases in Texas and Kentucky have caused three school districts to briefly suspend in-person classes.

But few schools have taken those steps so far, and superintendents contend that without national guidance, it is highly unlikely we’ll see a return of mass closures or mask mandates. 

In the post-emergency era of COVID-19, schools no longer have the comprehensive surveillance data that was readily available during the pandemic, though some local data remains available to inform their decision-making.

And without specific guidance, decisions on COVID mitigation measures are largely up to school district leaders, in cooperation with local health authorities and in consultation with the community.

“Superintendents will not make these calls in isolation,” said George Roberts, a Maryland superintendent. “What they did do during COVID, and what they’re currently doing now — and I suspect will continue to do as we get into the fall and winter season — is work in conjunction with their own internal health office” in their county or city. 

A common refrain from health experts with the end of the pandemic is that people should use viral mitigation methods based on their own degree of risk tolerance. With government actions unlikely to occur now, the same can be said for schools.

“Schools need to have a latitude to help protect their staff and their students,” said Sterling Ransone, family physician and board chair of the American Academy of Family Physicians.

“They can contact their health department, they can contact their family physicians and they can respond more rapidly to potential emerging respiratory diseases that are in their community,” Ransone said.

In the current situation, schools are focusing on the COVID-19 mitigation tactics they’ve had in place since mask mandates dropped, such as emphasizing hygiene and making sure anyone who contracted COVID-19 stays home for at least five days. 

Ransone lamented that school administrators may find themselves in a “can’t win” position this year as they precariously balance the health needs of their students and staff with politicized blowback if they do take concerted action against viral spread.

School closures and mask mandates became an explosive issue in school board meetings and have been the topic of multiple congressional hearings as student learning plummeted during the pandemic. 

The last test scores released by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in June showed average scores for 13-year-olds in mathematics are their lowest point since 1990, and reading shot down to levels seen in 2004.

PJ Caposey, superintendent of Meridian School District in Illinois, said he is “terrified” of the prospect of discussions to implement mask mandates or school closures again. 

“I’m terrified of what may happen and that people, on either end of the political spectrum, wouldn’t respond to data and information and respond to their political ideology,” Caposey said.

Despite the difficulties that can come with making the decisions, most superintendents likely prefer having local control. 

“I would definitely think people are happy they have the autonomy to make that decision, absolutely,” said Ronnie Harvey Jr., an administrative director of special education at a school district in Louisiana. 

Harvey compared the public health approach to how schools cater instruction to the learning needs of different students. 

“I think when you do the blanket approach, it is just like when we deliver instruction from a district personnel. When we push out some type of mandate for the district, we do focus on individualized instruction,” he said. 

The majority of school districts in the U.S. have already started the academic year, meaning students are returning to classrooms without yet having the protection offered by the bevy of new preventive treatments.

Young children this year can benefit from preventives against RSV, a common daycare disease that surged in children last year. The antibody for infants and toddlers is expected to roll out in time for this year’s RSV season, which typically starts in the fall and peaks during winter.

The updated COVID-19 vaccines are anticipated to become available by the end of September, less than ideal when cases and hospitalizations are on the rise.

Those in the health care sphere had hoped these products could have been made available sooner but also acknowledge the need for a proper review to be conducted before sending them onto the market.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices is scheduled to hold a meeting on the COVID-19 vaccines Sept. 12. Vaccine manufacturers have said they are prepared to roll out shots as soon as approval is granted.

When the federal public health emergency ended, reporting requirements on case rates went away as well. Much of what can be gleaned on viral spread is dependent on hospital admissions and wastewater detection. The current data hints at viral spread potentially becoming worse.

Hospital admissions rates have been rising since July, though deaths have not risen to the same degree, and early data suggests they may have even declined in recent weeks. Without case data, community COVID levels and their related recommendations are based on hospital admissions.

A few weeks ago, there were no U.S. counties with high COVID-19 hospital admission rates — meaning more than 20 admissions per 100,000 people. There are now seven in Texas and along the border of Mississippi and Alabama. 

The vast majority of the country — 96.15 percent — still has low admissions rates, according to CDC data. The number of counties with high admissions account for less than half of 1 percent of counties.

And though a few districts have reacted similarly to how schools responded to COVID in 2020, the U.S. is far more equipped now than it was then. Testing and antivirals are readily available. Updated vaccines are on the way, and almost everyone has some degree of antibody protection from prior infection or immunization.

“I always have concern, but I would just say that, overall, I know that my concern level as of today … is no different than it’s been at any point in the last 15 months,” Caposey said.


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